The Two Noble Kinsmen
Abbreviations: Cym. = Cymbeline; H8 = Henry VIII; KT = “The Knight’s Tale”; MND = A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Per. = Pericles; Tmp. = The Tempest; Tit. = Titus Andronicus; Tim. = Timon of Athens; Tro. = Troilus and Cressida; TNK = The Two Noble Kinsmen; WT = The Winter’s Tale
Bertram, Paul. Shakespeare and “The Two Noble Kinsmen.” New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1965.
Bertram’s study of TNK provides separate chapters on the authorship question, the manuscript behind the 1634 Quarto, critical views, and dramatic design. In his critical analysis, the author addresses the play’s relationship to Chaucer, the arrangement of the story, wedding symbolism, the Doctor’s scenes, and the characterization and thematic significance of the “two bold titlers” (5.3.100). Dividing TNK into three movements—the war against Creon (Act 1), the May Day contests (Acts 2 and 3), and the final tournament (Acts 4 and 5)—Bertram claims that the “controlling organization” of the action demonstrates “a single imagination at work,” namely, Shakespeare’s. The quarrel between Palamon and Arcite moves from being simply a question of “title” to Emilia to a “contest embracing every chivalric virtue.” By 5.3, the two kinsmen come to embody “[t]hose best affections that the heavens infuse / In their best-tempered pieces” (1.3.11–12) and prove their “title” to “the name of men.” The meaning of their contest “consists of the viewer’s sense of the heroic and human values arising from all the lesser conflicts and confrontations in the preceding acts . . . [and] of the cumulative gathering of these values” as they come together in Act 5. The book concludes with two appendices, one dealing with the play’s compositional date and the other providing a checklist of editions. Bertram’s claim that bibliographical, historical, and critical analysis supports the argument for Shakespeare’s sole authorship is a rarity in TNK scholarship; most critics regard the play as a collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher.
Donaldson, E. Talbot. “Love, War, and the Cost of Winning: The Knight’s Tale and The Two Noble Kinsmen.” In The Swan at the Well: Shakespeare Reading Chaucer, pp. 50–73. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
Calling TNK a “very unpleasant” play, Donaldson argues that Shakespeare was “fulsomely reexpress[ing]” the dark side of KT that he had first observed when writing MND: “[N]o play in the canon contains more horrid images than [TNK].” Confining himself for the most part to the scenes commonly assigned to Shakespeare, Donaldson makes the following points: (1) the gods in Chaucer (namely Mars, Venus, and Diana) have “an objective existence” missing from the play, where, as “human impulses objectified only in a poetic image,” they manipulate human behavior not from above but from within the human heart; (2) the differences between Palamon and Arcite, however slight in Chaucer, are eliminated in the play, whose “design assimilates Arcite to Palamon,” the former’s “ego . . . inflated to match” the latter’s; (3) in contrast to Chaucer’s Emily (“hardly more than a poetic image”), Shakespeare’s Emilia is more developed, her wish to remain a virgin “not just a girlish whim but a sincere womanly desire”; and (4) Shakespeare’s Theseus—“harsher, more remote, more prideful, more bullheaded” than Chaucer’s—is even less justified in asserting “the existence of a principle of divine justice that neither work sanctions.” Compared with KT, TNK “has no . . . moral, except that the world dominated by Mars and Venus is a messy one”: in short, Emilia’s question “Is this winning?” (5.3.163) serves as “an excellent if oblique commentary on the play.” Although a collaboration with Fletcher, TNK remains Shakespeare’s “most direct and unquestionable use of a Chaucerian source.”
Edwards, Philip. “On the Design of The Two Noble Kinsmen.” Review of English Literature 5 (October 1964): 89–105.
Edwards argues for a unity of design and a subtlety of theme in TNK that reflect the craftsmanship of Shakespeare’s hand, especially in Acts 1 and 5, which are generally assigned to him, with the middle acts attributed to Fletcher. The overall design marks a progression from innocence to experience, from the freedom of youthful friendship to the restriction of marriage: 1.1 and 1.3 provide “the clearest presentation of three people [Theseus, Hippolyta, and Emilia] conscious of the two major ways of life it is necessary to tread, innocence and experience, the impulsive life of youth . . . and the more contained life of marriage.” Taken together, the first three scenes depict the thwarting of desire when helpless human agents are confronted by forces beyond their control. In a reading that posits “consistency” rather than “contradiction” between the first and final acts, “ ‘mature’ love means abandoning something more worthwhile.” This dark vision of love and desire informs the relationship of Theseus and Hippolyta, Emilia’s initial vow never to marry, the subplot of the Jailer’s Daughter, the facility with which both Emilia and the Jailer’s Daughter accept substitute suitors, and, most notably, the lives of Palamon and Arcite. As their broken bonds of youthful friendship attest, “to gain the new love [of Emilia] is to destroy the old,” a theme first suggested in the “ ‘rivalry’ between Pirithous and Hippolyta for Theseus’ affection” (1.3). Edwards locates the play’s center in Palamon’s address to Venus (5.1.85–137), a speech more realistic than romantic in its focus on love’s clandestine ways and power to deform. TNK rejects the idea of sexual love as “the natural and beautiful fulfillment of an otherwise immature innocence” and charts a movement away from joy to the misery of loss, thus emerging as Shakespeare’s “most cynical assessment of the progress of life since the writing of Tro.” Edwards concludes that “we really need not be ashamed of ” a play having such “purposeful” thematic design.
Frey, Charles H., ed. Shakespeare, Fletcher and “The Two Noble Kinsmen.” Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.
Frey’s anthology consists of ten essays, a brief introduction, and an annotated bibliography. The essays cover the following topics: the textual provenance and compositorial attribution of the 1634 Quarto (Paul Werstine), the problem of authorial attribution (Charles H. Frey, Donald K. Hedrick, and Michael D. Bristol), traditions of male friendship (Barry Weller), gender anxiety (Charles H. Frey and Susan Green), the figure of the Amazon in male Western tradition and “crises of male self-definition” (Jeanne Addison Roberts), TNK as “bourgeois drama” (Richard Abrams), and performance history (Hugh Richmond). Rounding out the volume is Will Hamlin’s bibliographical guide to the play’s critical and scholarly history. The “emergent theme” of the collection is that TNK, “a superb dramatic work . . . [whose] time is now,” presents “not only rivalrous personalities but also rivalrous systems of identity and value for artistic merit, gender relations, and social class [that] oppose and mingle in curiously self-subverting ways.”
Lief, Madelon, and Nicholas F. Radel. “Linguistic Subversion and the Artifice of Rhetoric in The Two Noble Kinsmen.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 405–25.
Lief and Radel contend that TNK is characterized by a “consistent undercutting of the language of invocation,” a rhetorical technique employed skillfully by both Shakespeare and Fletcher in their respective scenes. In contrast to the Elizabethan “imitation of ideal . . . patterns of behavior”—i.e., “reality on a grand . . . scale”—the “new verisimilitude” of Fletcherian tragicomedy focuses on quotidian reality and underscores “inconsistencies, discontinuities, and failure of perception.” The rhetoric crafted to convey this new realism prompted the audience to respond to spectacle and language “as empirical data”: the result of “rhetorical and ritualistic patterns” at odds with the experiences of the characters is “a skeptical drama that plays on the tension between reality and the attempt of characters to impose order on that reality.” To illustrate how Shakespeare and Fletcher undermine “idealist mimesis and decorum” in TNK, the authors first examine the language of Palamon and Arcite in Fletcher’s 2.2; failing to “live up to their words” once they’ve seen Emilia, the two kinsmen emerge as “small, absurd creatures, interesting not as they grapple with great ideas, morality, and ethics, but, rather, as they are unable to do so.” Fletcher’s “subversion of the idealist mimesis” in the scenes attributed to him “becomes, in Shakespeare’s more able hands, a questioning of man’s ability to comprehend fully his place in the cosmos”; see, for example, 1.1, 1.3, and 5.1, where audience response to the rhetoric and pageantry is qualified by Shakespeare’s insinuation that both “are impotent and fail to create order.” As further evidence of how the dramatists’ “artifice of rhetoric . . . creates a [skeptical] perspective on the action of [TNK], and vice versa,” Lief and Radel point to the subplot, observing how the Doctor’s pragmatic treatment of the Jailer’s Daughter and the Schoolmaster’s “sterile rhetorical figures” expose the “inadequacy” of Theseus’s “abstract, ritualistic, and ethical codes.” While Fletcher’s dramatic gifts differ from Shakespeare’s, the resulting discrepancies in the play are not as “serious” as some critics have claimed. Fletcher is “never as profound as Shakespeare,” but through his “powerful manipulation of language and of subplot,” he helps “to consolidate in [TNK] a theatrical technique that reflects a cynical and problematic world view emerging in Shakespeare’s late plays and in non-Shakespearean drama of the early seventeenth century.”
Lynch, Kathryn. L. “The Three Noble Kinsmen: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Fletcher.” In Images of Matter: Essays on British Literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, edited by Yvonne Bruce, pp. 72–91. (Proceedings of the Eighth Citadel Conference on Literature, Charleston, South Carolina, 2002.) Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005.
In TNK, Shakespeare’s “uneasy emulation” of Chaucer combines with Fletcher’s “revisionary engagement” with Shakespeare to produce a play that “conceives of itself . . . as a collaboration between all three of these authors.” While medieval writers tended to “genuflect . . . in the direction of [their] sources,” Shakespeare rarely did so; in his last play, TNK, however, he and Fletcher begin by acknowledging the play’s “medieval foundation in Chaucer . . . [and] continue . . . to explore the meaning of that foundation by weaving the themes of emulation and authority into virtually every instant.” Lynch singles out 1.2 (by Shakespeare) and 2.2 (by Fletcher) to demonstrate how each time either playwright tries to escape Chaucer’s influence, “the pull of the narrative source” is felt. The Prologue’s reference to the play as a child descended from Chaucer and dependent on a receptive audience (lines 15–18) suggests that collaboration “both creates the problem of legitimacy and shows the way out of it”: i.e., through acknowledging and exploiting its “collaborative thematics,” TNK may finally “rise above them.” In what may be Shakespeare’s valedictory to the theater, he “reveals both his nostalgia and his anxiety, allowing a glimpse both of the unfinished business he has with the past, especially with his most powerful literary father, Chaucer, and the nervousness even a strong father can experience about [the legacy he leaves to] his sons.” For Lynch, Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s appropriation of Chaucer in TNK is not a transparent or uncomplicated gesture of respect for the medieval poet but rather a “self-conscious performance of competition in several keys—political, sexual, literary, historical, sibling.”
Magnusson, Lynne. “The Collapse of Shakespeare’s High Style in The Two Noble Kinsmen.” English Studies in Canada 13 (1987): 375–90.
Magnusson closely examines the opening and final scenes of TNK in order to determine the ends to which Shakespeare deploys the “ornate eloquence” that marks the many “virtuoso pieces” in his portion of the play. Her stylistic analysis (of cadence, imagery, diction, syntax, and rhetorical devices) focuses on the following passages: 1.1.65–78, 100–111, 118–34, 197–201, 202–8; 5.4.62–101, and 147–60. The “stylized, . . . strange, and over-ornate” representation of the grieving queens and the conflicted Theseus in 1.1 reflects the scene’s formality and dazzling pageantry but fails to persuade us that the high style voices the speakers’ innermost feelings. Instead, verbal fluency is contrived to invest a situation lacking in “compelling necessity” with serious meaning: the burial of bones did not evoke the same passion in the seventeenth century that it did in the world of Antigone; and Theseus’s “dilemma” is neither problematic nor heroic in that he is not being asked to sacrifice his marriage, only to postpone it briefly. Turning to 5.4, “the stagiest climax” in Shakespeare, Magnusson argues that “gorgeous rhetoric” produces a comic effect, as evidenced by Pirithous’s mock-heroic narrative of Arcite’s fatal accident (“teasingly digressive” in its syntax) and Theseus’s closing speech (an “empty consolation,” awkward in its use of rhyme and paradox). Stylistic ornament, combined with the melodrama of a stayed execution, a death on cue, and a reconciliation “given short shrift,” makes for a farcical conclusion. Close analysis of 1.1 and 5.4 demonstrates Shakespeare’s use of “high style” rhetoric for contradictory purposes: first, to “conceal a failure of substance, and invite . . . serious presentation”; then, to “reveal a failure of substance, and invite . . . send-up.” Speculating on the problems inherent in collaborating with Fletcher, Magnusson wonders whether the “self-exhibiting and self-consuming verbal devices of the finale may be Shakespeare’s attempt to salvage at least some entertainment from a collaboration without common purpose.”
Neely, Carol Thomas. “Diagnosing Women’s Melancholy: Case Histories and the Jailer’s Daughter’s Cure in Two Noble Kinsmen.” In Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture, pp. 69–98. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.
Neely’s book examines “changes in the discourse of madness” between the years 1576 and 1632. This chapter focuses on how cultural pressures “lead polemic texts to revise the Galenic tradition of deluded melancholics and create a new subdivision, female melancholy,” theorized in contemporary case histories of women sufferers as a disease of the mind and genitals: “women grow deluded by desire,” i.e., by their congested or disordered reproductive organs, not by witchcraft and possession. This new thinking “grow[s] out of the urgent scrutiny of women’s distraction in the light of pressing needs to reassess supernaturally caused ailments as natural diseases.” Neely uses the exemplars found in Andre Du Laurens’s Of melancholike diseases (1599), Edward Jorden’s Briefe Discourse of a Disease called the Suffocation of the Mother (1603), and Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) to argue that in TNK (1613) Shakespeare and Fletcher “picked up and circulated” this “regendered and hence reconceptualized” theory of melancholy in the character of the Jailer’s Daughter, whose growing delusion is brought on by her frustrated sexual desire for Palamon, and whose chief prescribed cure by the Doctor, namely, “coital cure,” reflects the common remedy advocated in medical tracts of the period. By dramatizing the Jailer’s Daughter’s madness and its cure, Shakespeare and Fletcher situate women’s delusions in their bodies and establish the “benefit of marriage” as therapy. When conflated with theatrical cures for deluded melancholics, the new medical remedies prescribed for women diagnosed with melancholy resulting from disordered reproductive functions “creat[ed] irresistible opportunities for stage representation and new models of female subjectivity.”
Sanders, Julie. “Mixed Messages: The Aesthetics of Two Noble Kinsmen.” In A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works, edited by Richard Dutton and Jean Howard, 4:445–61. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004.
Arguing that TNK is a product of its time, Sanders draws links between the play’s generic and aesthetic structures “that commit it both to the physical playing conditions of its original performance and the political situation of 1613.” She divides her argument into three parts: an analysis of the drama’s five-act structure (new to Shakespeare at the time he co-wrote the play with Fletcher); a description of the architectural features of the Blackfriars theater (where TNK was probably first performed) and of specific spaces and places invoked and explored in the play; and a discussion of the impact on TNK of contemporary events (e.g., the death of Prince Henry in November 1612 followed by the wedding of Princess Elizabeth in February 1613) and of aesthetic contexts (most notably, the “dominant interest in tragicomedy . . . matched by the increased influence of the parallel genre of the masque”). Sanders describes at length the play’s mastery of the possibilities inherent in a five-act structure; Act 1, for instance, “performs in microcosm the overall architectonic design of the play: wedding to funeral.” She also notes an attentiveness to tragicomedy’s preoccupation with margins (e.g., country settings, local concerns, women’s issues, pastoral, and folklore motifs); even the play’s tendency to stage major events just offstage reflects the genre’s structural bias toward margins. Observing how the physical setting of Blackfriars “encouraged . . . aesthetic links between the essentially aristocratic form of masque and the public playhouse [see, e.g., the Globe’s H8],” Sanders turns her attention to such works as The Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn, The Caversham Entertainment, The Lord’s Masque, and The Coleorton Masque. Her concern, however, is not so much with the “precise mappings of particular masques” onto TNK but rather with a recognition that a “nuanced notion of . . . the early Stuart masque is crucial to a proper understanding of the political as well as dramatic aesthetics of [TNK].” She concludes that the play is “the product of a coherent and cohesive attitude to the events of their day by two brilliant and insightful writers.”
Scott, Mark W., and Sandra L. Williamson, eds. “The Two Noble Kinsmen.” In Shakespearean Criticism: Excerpts from the Criticism of William Shakespeare’s Plays and Poetry from the First Published Appraisals to Current Evaluations, 9:439–510. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986.
This volume presents significant passages from published criticism on TNK. The set of passages is introduced by a brief discussion of the “date,” “text,” and “sources,” followed by a longer discussion of the “critical history” of the play. Each entry, beginning with Alexander Pope (1725) and ending with Paula S. Berggren (1984), is prefaced with a brief historical overview that places the excerpted document in the context of responses to the play. The thirty entries include commentary from William Warburton (1747), George Steevens (1780), Charles Lamb (1808), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1811), William Spalding (1833), G. G. Gervinus (1849–50), Edward Dowden (1877), Algernon Charles Swinburne (1880), Theodore Spencer (1939), Mark Van Doren (1939), Kenneth Muir (1960), Clifford Leech (1962, 1966), Frank Kermode (1963), Philip Edwards (1964; see entry above), N. W. Bawcutt (1977), and F. W. Brownlow (1977). A briefly annotated bibliography of thirty-two additional items concludes the section. Subsequent volumes in the series update the criticism under the headings “Overviews,” “General Studies,” “Authorship Issue,” “Production Reviews,” “Themes” (especially love and friendship), “Characterization,” “Language and Structure,” “Social Class,” “Gender Roles,” and “Relation to Chaucer” (see 41:289–391, 50:294–381, 58:321–78, and 70:302–45); each volume includes suggestions for further reading.
Shannon, Laurie J. “Emilia’s Argument: Friendship and ‘Human Title’ in Two Noble Kinsmen.” ELH 64 (1997): 657–82.
Whereas traditional readings of TNK accord with the “conventional privileged place of marriage in dramatic comedy,” Shannon claims that the play offers an “astonishingly negative” view of marriage as a “brutally . . . political institution.” To illustrate her thesis, she focuses on the character of Emilia, more expansive, complex, and active than her Chaucerian counterpart. In the female voice of a reasoning and self-possessed Amazon, the play not only rebuts the classical and early modern trope of ideal friendship as possible only between male equals but also offers a counterpoint to the tyranny of “coercive marriage . . . [and in the person of Theseus] tyranny in its plain political sense.” Central to Emilia’s role as advocate for female friendship, female proprietary space, and volitional chastity (“a homosocial bond between women” rather than simply a state of “single blessedness”) are her nostalgic remembrance of the affection shared with Flavina (1.3), her present mirth in the company of her Woman (2.2), and her repeated use of a female standard to evaluate situations (see 2.5.28–30; 3.6.305–11; and 4.2.28–31). In the end, however, Theseus’s imposition of marriage transforms Emilia from agent to victim: the defeat of female homoerotics, marked by a funeral rather than a wedding. Still, what makes TNK such an “extraordinary text” for its time is that the great figure of resistance to tyrannical power in the play is neither of the male friends but “a lady knight who revises the definitional prejudices of the male model regarding both gender and sexuality.” Through Emilia, Shakespeare and Fletcher rewrite the period’s characteristically masculine friendship rhetoric to suggest that female friendship is both preferable to and more lasting than the male kind.
Sinfield, Alan. “Cultural Materialists and Intertextuality: The Limits of Queer Reading in MND and TNK.” Shakespeare Survey 56 (2003): 67–78. [The original essay is incorporated into Alan Sinfield, Shakespeare, Authority, Sexuality: Unfinished Business in Cultural Materialism, chapter 5 (pp. 68–85) (London: Routledge, 2006).]
Sinfield offers a queer reading of same-sex alternatives to male-female relationships in MND and TNK, two plays with strong similarities, among them the interrupted nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta, the disruption of the affections of marriageable young people, and the festive presentations by lower-class characters. Supplying aspects of the ideological environment of MND, the later play accentuates the alternatives selected by each text as it “actualizes different parts of their shared field of possibilities.” In TNK, for example, the fuller evocation of female independence by Hippolyta differs from her attitude toward marriage in MND; similarly, the same sex-bonding found in Emilia’s nostalgic remembrance of her friendship with the late Flavina (TNK 1.3.57–93) contrasts with the negative view of women living together in MND (where Theseus threatens Hermia with “the livery of a nun . . . in shady cloister mewed” [1.1.72–73]). Ironically, at the moment when Palamon and Arcite first see Emilia and their friendship is fractured, she remains onstage talking to her waiting woman about the superiority of female relationships (2.2). Although now cast as opponents, the combative young kinsmen continue their male bonding in that they spend more time fighting with each other than wooing Emilia. In contrast, Lysander and Demetrius pay only occasional attention to each other in their play. While TNK suggests a significant context for companionable same-sex passion, MND implies such bonding not among the play’s boys and girls but in Titania’s devotion to a votaress of her order and in Oberon’s desire for “a little changeling boy” (2.1.123). “Read[ing] against the grain,” Sinfield suggests that a ménage à trois in TNK would be a more satisfactory solution than the funeral of Arcite and the planned wedding of Emilia and Palamon. If he were to stage MND, the author would have the four lovers resist Oberon’s drugs to produce some “more interesting interpersonal combinations.” Sinfield intends such readings to provide “a critical perspective upon [the plays’] ideological assumptions and, indeed, upon our own.”
Stewart, Alan. “ ‘Near Kin’: The Trials of Friendship in Two Noble Kinsmen.” In Shakespeare’s Late Plays: New Readings, edited by Jennifer Richards, pp. 57–71. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
Stewart argues that contrary to being a “failed attempt at a play about idealised male friendship, [TNK] is rather a play about a failed attempt at idealised male friendship.” He locates the cause of this failure in the tension between classical and chivalric traditions of male friendship and the “realities of social relations” in Jacobean England, especially as manifest in a particular form of kinship: cognatic cousinage (i.e., the relationship of first cousins who, as the children of sisters, share a lineage derivative from the female side). As evidenced by the thirty-eight times they refer to themselves in “kinship terms,” Palamon and Arcite see themselves primarily as kinsmen, specifically as cousins; consequently, the best way to approach TNK is to think of it “as a play about the problems of kinship,” not friendship. When understood in the context of a Jacobean culture that, especially among aristocratic and upper classes, continued to regard women as commodities to be exchanged between patriarchal houses, first cousins through the female line “are necessarily born into different houses, because their mothers married into different houses. This means, then, that the connection between the two cousins is not necessarily mutually beneficial.” Stewart contends that the “futility” of the young men’s kinship in the play is “signalled throughout . . . by a skillfully maintained figurative representation [that insistently] return[s] to figures of maternity” (e.g., 2.5.28–30; 4.2.30–31, 69–70) and to images of passive male sexuality (see the Ovidian analogies to Narcissus and Ganymede in 2.2.135–37 and 4.2.13–23, 28–35). With the cousins “firmly established as mothers’ boys, the masculinity of both Palamon and Arcite is steadily chipped away.” The passage at 2.2.85–93 is “one of the most passionate friendship speeches in English literature,” but its sentiment is undermined by the fact that the young men are incarcerated and deprived of “their social agency”: the hyperbolic promise to be each other’s wife, family, and heir is immediately “shelved” once they glimpse “a way back into the real world . . . in the form of Emilia, marriage to whom will ensure not only freedom but social success in Athens.” The social implications of cognatic kinship and the expedient nature of their friendship—“no more than a game to while away long hours of incarceration”—require the death of one knight (an incidental detail in Chaucer): for Palamon to win, Arcite must die. Fletcher and Shakespeare “indulge their audience in the comfortable humanist myth of amicitia, and the reliable codes of chivalric courtship, only to force that audience to accept the fact that ultimately these are no more than myths and codes, and that they cannot thrive together.”
Thompson, Ann. “The Two Noble Kinsmen.” In Shakespeare’s Chaucer: A Study in Literary Origins, pp. 166–215. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1978.
In her comprehensive study of Shakespeare’s use of Chaucer, Thompson devotes chapter 5 to a comparative analysis of TNK and its primary source, Chaucer’s KT. Thompson’s scene-by-scene study confirms the “orthodox position” on the division of the play between Shakespeare and Fletcher: Acts 1 and 5 are generally assigned to Shakespeare, the middle acts (with the exception of 2.1., 3.1 and 2, and 4.3) to Fletcher. The main focus of the chapter is, in fact, “the contrast between the two dramatists . . . [who] clearly saw completely different things” in their Chaucerian source, which they “dramatized . . . in quite independent ways.” The chapter concludes with a section titled “Chaucer, romance, and tragicomedy.” Thompson’s comparative study demonstrates that in an effort to “turn [KT] into a commercial tragicomedy like Philaster,” Fletcher emphasizes situations and sensational effects at the expense of plot development and coherence of character. Shakespeare, on the other hand, approaches the source from the perspective of his final romances, which “do not modify accepted comic and tragic patterns in the manner of Fletcherian tragicomedy” but instead “make a more genuine claim to combine the qualities of both.” The theme of sexual love’s “degrading effects . . . and the jealousy which can accompany it,” while present in Cym. and WT, is stronger in TNK. A skepticism greater than that found in Tmp., an emphasis on “human impotence,” the depiction of the gods as “arbitrary and controlling forces,” and a consideration of “the dark side of love, . . . its cruelty, and above all its cost” make TNK “grimmer than the other romances”: “the first of [what could have been] a new set of ‘dark comedies’ or ‘problem plays.’ ” Its inconsistencies and discrepancies afford a “unique opportunity . . . to observe the many differences between [a late Shakespearean romance] and the new genre of Fletcherian tragicomedy.”
Vickers, Brian. “Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen with John Fletcher.” In Shakespeare, Co-Author: A Historical Study of Five Collaborative Plays, pp. 333–432, esp. 402–32. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
In his study of Shakespeare as coauthor of five plays (Tit., Tim., Per., H8, and TNK), Vickers devotes chapter 6 to the Shakespeare-Fletcher collaboration responsible for H8 and TNK. The designation of the latter as a collaborative effort between the two dramatists dates from the first documentary mention of the play in the Stationers’ Register on April 8, 1634, and from the title page of the earliest printed edition, the 1634 Quarto, where the printer John Waterson (none of whose attributions have been thought to be false) attributes TNK to both playwrights. Vickers describes at length the scholarly work done through the centuries ascribing the authorship of particular scenes to Shakespeare or Fletcher; early commentators cited include George Steevens (1780), Henry Weber (1812), William Spalding (1833), Samuel Hickson (1847), and Harold Littledale (1885). From the twentieth century, Vickers considers Alfred Hart’s scrutiny of Shakespeare’s word formations (1934) and Paul Werstine’s examination of the influence of compositors on the text (1989). As detailed in the chapter, the pattern of collaboration shows Shakespeare tackling the exposition for the main plot, beginning the subplot of the Jailer’s Daughter, contributing various scenes throughout, and reserving for himself the final scene. In addition to stylistic and metrical evidence of coauthorship, Vickers notes how characterization changes when one dramatist takes over for the other: for example, in Fletcher’s depiction of Palamon and Arcite, the two kinsmen, first seen as moralists with a strong sense of indignation at Theban corruption (1.2), become “two-dimensional swains” who indulge their griefs (2.2.1–59). Emilia also changes from Shakespeare’s chaste virgin with a lack of interest in men to a woman with a taste for sexual innuendos when Fletcher writes her. Differences between the two playwrights’ handling of the source material may derive from Shakespeare’s longer experience in the theater and Fletcher’s desire to adapt Chaucer’s story to the pattern of tragicomedy. By giving himself the final scene, something he did not do in H8, Shakespeare was able to end the play on “a black note” and give it “a far more unified conclusion than had been achieved in [H8].”
Waith, Eugene M. “Shakespeare and Fletcher on Love and Friendship.” Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 235–50.
In a close reading of individual scenes, Waith examines the conflict between love and friendship that underlies the main plot of TNK. His focus is on Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s “shifts of emphasis” in their dramatization of the story of Palamon and Arcite, a narrative previously found in Boccaccio’s Teseida and Chaucer’s KT. Accepting the usual division of scenes between Shakespeare and Fletcher, Waith notes differences in their respective treatments of love and friendship but also observes a “large measure of cooperation”: the play, in fact, is “better unified than is often granted.” In contrast to both Boccaccio and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Fletcher make friendship central to their version of the story: in the first three scenes, generally assigned to Shakespeare, a “high value” is placed on the friendships of Theseus and Pirithous, Palamon and Arcite, and Emilia and Flavina; from their first appearance to their last, the equality of the two kinsmen (the foundation of ideal friendship in Cicero and Montaigne) is stressed; and in Act 3, both dramatists (Shakespeare in 3.1 and Fletcher in 3.3 and 3.6) play up the importance of courtesy between two friends now cast as opponents in love. “Courtesy may be only a faint echo of their friendship, but in the extreme instance of the civilized treatment of an enemy who threatens one’s life it is a reminder of the high ideals on which that friendship was founded.” The irony and potential for absurdity in Palamon’s and Arcite’s declarations of undying friendship notwithstanding, we are never meant to question the quality of their commitment to each other. TNK’s bias toward friendship over love is most pronounced in Act 5: see, for example, the embrace of the two kinsmen before the tournament (5.1); Emilia’s compassion for Arcite on the loss of Palamon (5.3), for whom “no woman can atone”; and the “moving reassertion of the bond of friendship so nearly destroyed by love” (5.4.102–13). Unlike the Palamon in Boccaccio and Chaucer, Shakespeare’s Palamon “asks for and receives Arcite’s last words,” thereby making clear that Emilia is won only through the loss of a friend. As befits a tragicomedy, the play concludes with plans for a wedding, but “the tone of the final lines is as somber as that of most tragedies. The predominant feeling is one of friendship lost.”